Industry's wallets willing for spectrum

Money talks, and to free radio spectrum for third-generation wireless (3G) applications, it will need to speak up, according to several members of a panel discussion held at the Capitol on Thursday.

But federal users of key spectrum space may not be ready to listen.

The panel, sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus' Advisory Committee, explored the dilemma involved in allocating spectrum for 3G applications, which promise to bring high-speed mobile Internet access.

Spectrum bands selected for 3G use by a worldwide consortium are used in the United States by a number of federal users, most notably the Defense Department and the Instructional Television Fixed Service, which provides distance-learning services across the country. Reports issued last week by the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that sharing spectrum bands with industry would be difficult and that moving federal users to new bands, if possible, would be expensive.

Moderator Gerry Waldron compared the spectrum situation to a game of Monopoly where "there's a house or hotel on every spot on the board already." Only in this case, wireless companies that "land" on DOD or ITFS properties will have to pay more than just rent — they'll pay for them to move altogether.

However, panelists said industry likely would be willing to pay the costs of moving federal "incumbents" because of 3G's moneymaking potential.

By law, any incumbents relocated must be reimbursed, and industry should be able to pay enough to make it worthwhile for them, said Tom Segrue, chief of the FCC's wireless bureau. "There should be enough money to make things work out," he said.

However, "you can only move and talk about money when there's someplace to go," said Leslie Harris, president of Leslie Harris and Associates, which represents several ITFS services. The recent spectrum reports noted the difficulties in moving established users, she said.

In addition, moving ITFS services could disrupt a plan to provide much-needed broadband access to rural and inner-city areas just as that effort is about to shift into high gear, she said.

"There's more at stake here than moving out incumbents," Harris said. "It's much more complicated than that."

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